Here’s how Spicer could have played this, if he hadn’t been directly ordered by his boss to back him up on what was said at last night’s meeting with congressional leaders. Which, let’s face it, is almost certainly what happened. Three simple points:
1. Some illegals do vote illegally.
2. We don’t comment on what was said by or to the president in private meetings.
3. The election is over and it’s time to get to work.
Easy peasy. As to point one, there is indeed at least one study out there showing that illegals vote in high enough numbers to swing elections — very, very close elections, on the order of Al Franken’s razor-thin victory over Norm Coleman in Minnesota in 2008. Go back and read this post from 2014 for some thoughts on that study, which was genuinely alarming and important. The bombshell number from it was the claim that “More than 14 percent of non-citizens in both the 2008 and 2010 samples indicated that they were registered to vote.” One of the researchers who compiled the data on which the study was based debunked the “14 percent” figure last year, though, claiming that it was a product of measurement error by the authors. The likely percentage of illegals who vote, the researcher claimed, is roughly zero.
Jesse Richman, one of the authors of the study, wrote a short post of his own last October in response to Trump citing his study repeatedly on the campaign trail. Yes, said Richman, some illegals vote — but not in great numbers:
Both sides of the debate on non-citizen voting have exaggerated our findings concerning non-citizen representation. There are many on the left side of that debate who have relentlessly sought to discredit our results and want to push the level of estimated non-citizen participation to zero. On the right there has been a tendency to misread our results as proof of massive voter fraud, which we don’t think they are. Our focus has been on the data rather than the politics.
We found low but non-zero levels of non-citizen participation in elections. These levels are sufficient to change the outcomes in extremely close elections, as we illustrated in the paper. But one should keep in mind that such elections can be swayed by any number of factors that arguably bias election results toward, or against, particular parties and candidates. Put another way, our results suggest that almost all elections in the US are not determined by non-citizen participation, with occasional and very rare potential exceptions.
When you’re talking about a spread of, say, 537 votes a la Bush/Gore in Florida 2000, yeah, that’s a moment to worry about illegals voting. When you’re talking about 3.5 million votes across the country? Nah.
The question is why Trump and Spicer would continue to push this claim knowing that the evidence is thin and that they’re going to be dogged now by the media about ordering an investigation if they’re that concerned about it. (Watch Mara Liasson put that question to Spicer in the clip below.) This tweet is a few days old, having been posted after Spicer’s press conference on Saturday, but I think points two and three are pure perfection in diagnosing the Trump media strategy then and now:
Re Spicer's lies, this is from someone who worked in a past administration. Important read. pic.twitter.com/XrjLJHRAGL
— Anna Rascouët-Paz (@rascouet) January 22, 2017
Push the outlandish claim, knowing that it’s outlandish or even because it’s outlandish, and maximize the cognitive dissonance that forces supporters to commit even more deeply to the idea of Trump as the ultimate truth-teller. The goal is to reach the point where literally any damaging or inconvenient information, even if true, can be dismissed as “media bias” or “fake news” by the White House. I think this is going to go exactly as Stephen Miller predicts, the same as it went when Trump claimed during the campaign that he saw thousands of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey after 9/11. If the claim can’t be verified in its totality, the defense will shift to verifying any part of it and then claiming that that’s close enough to the whole truth to mean that Trump was basically right and his lying, discredited media detractors wrong. So, for instance, if the DOJ ends up reviewing ballots in California and finds that, say, 2,000 illegals voted, that’ll be cited as total vindication — illegals voted in large-ish numbers! — even though the heart of Trump’s claim, that they voted by the millions and actually changed the outcome of the popular vote, would have been eviscerated. The point, as always, is to convey the sense that Trump is telling hard truths that “they” don’t want you to know about, even when he’s obviously wrong.
Update: A Twitter pal notes this paragraph writer by Trump’s own lawyers, from a December filing with Michigan’s Board of Canvassers. They were objecting to Jill Stein’s petition for a recount.